Ending poverty for people with disabilities and building accessibility into the fabric of housing, health care and employment should be on the agenda for the next government, disability advocates say.
Almost one in four people in B.C. live with a disability, and that number will grow as the population ages and individuals become ill later in life.
Heather McCain, executive director of Citizens for Accessible Neighbourhood Services, knows firsthand the big challenges they face.
“It was life-changing to develop a disability, having to leave work, navigate the medical system and all the adaptive medical equipment. And doing that under the constant weight of living in poverty, it was soul-crushing,” she said. “It’s just constant stress that’s in your head.”
The government introduced a $300-per-month pandemic supplement for people on income and disability assistance, a life-changing boost for many.
Advocates say the increase should be made permanent and assistance rates indexed to inflation by the next government.
Even with the extra payment, disability assistance for a single person is about $1,480 a month, far below the poverty line of about $1,600 in B.C.
Under the BC Liberal government, assistance rates stagnated for 16 years, with income assistance rates frozen for a decade.
Liberal candidate for Surrey South Stephanie Cadieux said her party would not cut assistance rates, but wouldn’t say whether it would raise them or continue the supplement after the pandemic.
“We’re in a pandemic, we're in a circumstance where people are struggling, right now is the time when social programs, health care, education, all of these things need to be maintained and strengthened for the purposes of ensuring everyone has what they need,” said Cadieux, who previously served as minister for social development and uses a wheelchair.
The NDP government raised some rates incrementally and introduced the top-up in March and then later extended it until December.
But the New Democrats said raising the rates permanently would be a budget decision for February 2021.
“Government will need to make determinations about whether some [benefits] are extended or adapted or changed,” said Shane Simpson, minister for social programs and poverty reduction who is not seeking re-election. A coming report from the province’s panel on guaranteed income could also have implications for people with disabilities when it is released in December, he said.
The BC Greens did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
McCain said the low rates make it difficult for people with disabilities to afford housing and food, let alone afford assistive devices and equipment that help them get around, work and socialize safely.
She’d like to see coverage of these technologies, like home lifts or communication devices, expanded and made easier to apply for. Therapies that help ease pain and discomfort for some should also be covered by the provincial medical services plan, McCain said.
Cadieux said the Liberals would update the building code to prioritize accessibility and increase the supply of accessible homes, currently in short supply. They would also revive a grant program to support accessible renovations and retrofitting in people’s homes.
The NDP would focus on ensuring elements of universal design — spaces that are usable for people of all abilities — are incorporated into new public housing builds, and that small modifications for accessibility are possible.
McCain and the Disability Alliance of BC said there needs to be protection for renters with disabilities to ensure they are prioritized for accessible public housing units. Accessible units often go to people who don’t need those features, she said.
Very few units, even in subsidized or below-market housing, are affordable given the $375 shelter allowance included in disability rates. Measures to increase accessibility are meaningless if people can’t afford housing.
“It needs to be accessible and it needs to be affordable,” said Justina Loh, executive director of the alliance.
Both the Liberals and the NDP also promise to introduce accessibility legislation. The New Democrats version was slated to be introduced in the legislature this fall until the election was called.
Cadieux was critical of the NDP’s decision to do another consultation with the disability community, noting the Liberals had gone through a similar process in 2014. But Simpson said it was important to ensure provincial legislation complements the federal Accessible Canada Act introduced in 2019.
Both McCain and Loh agree any legislation needs to have “teeth” to enforce accessibility standards in order to make a real difference in health care and access to services.
One problem area that Cadieux vowed to address was ensuring people with developmental disabilities can have an advocate with them when getting hospital care. COVID-19 restrictions made that more difficult.
McCain said the next government also needs to ensure people with disabilities facing a mental health crisis have supports that don’t rely on police. People also need ongoing support in dealing with the stress that comes from navigating life with a disability, she said.
Loh would also love to see the next government consult more with young people with disabilities who live in assisted living and long-term care facilities alongside seniors, but with very different physical and social needs.
Both Cadieux and Simpson stressed the importance of workforce supports for people with disabilities, who have been hit hard by the pandemic. But advocates cautioned that people with disabilities who aren’t able to work deserve as much respect and support as anyone else.
And while harmful attitudes and assumptions about people with disabilities will take time to change for the better, both Loh and McCain agree the most immediate way to help people with disabilities live and participate is to increase assistance rates.
The Canada Emergency Response Benefit was set at $2,000 per month as the minimum needed for an adult to live. So why, they ask, are people with complex needs and often families of their own expected to live on so much less?
McCain remembers missing health appointments because she couldn’t afford to take transit on her assistance cheque, and hopes a permanent increase can help prevent that for other people with disabilities.
“A lot of people think that the province is giving money to people with disabilities and that’s enough,” said McCain, noting that many more people will develop disabilities as they age or become ill.
“But it is not enough, and living in poverty adds so many weights to your life.”